(Previous Chapter: http://www.erfworld.com/blog/view/55358/money-makes-the-world-go-round-part-17)


Jillian was tossing and turning, her body refusing to get comfortable on her bed, while her mind just kept turning at a million hexes a minute. Her thoughts should have been on her side, on the units that needed her leadership now more than ever, but instead the only thing on her mind was that turn, that blasted, stupid turn where everything had gone wrong again, where her happiness had once again been shattered.


“Why, Wanda, why?” she asked the darkness of her room, her fists closing around the sheets, balling up the covers, as her nails dug into the soft fabric. She knew the answer to her questions, of course. She knew why Wanda had done this to her, not once, but twice now. That Croakamancer who’d stolen her heart over the days of torture, who had made her want her even more than a new bud, and now who haunted her every action.


The turn before, she’d been on top of the world. A Queen, an honest to Titans Queen, who’d been Ruler of her own side. She’d sat astride a megalo, and commanded units whose loyalty had been so high. She’d bargained with Wanda, and when the terms hadn’t been to her liking, she’d changed the deal until it suited her, using Charlie to get what she’d wanted all along.


But then it had turned to ash. She’d seen the hurt in Wanda’s eyes, not just that she’d not wanted her, but that betrayal. She’d not attacked Jillian, when before she’d have been able to just destroy her, and now Jillian had handed her death. Jillian knew what that meant, she knew what Wanda saw it as. If she were ever in the Croakamancer’s care again, she wouldn’t get a choice, there would be no hard or easy way, just Decryption.


She’d gotten her prize, however. After betraying Wanda, a woman whose love was as caustic as any other hate, she’d gotten Ansom. Then she’d left. She’d abandoned her position. In any other battle, if anyone else had done that, she’d have seen them executed, but for her, it had seemed the right choice. She wasn’t there at Spacerock for some Royal Ideal, or even for Charlie, or Wanda. She was there for Ansom, and once she had him, it had been time to leave.


Charlie had tried to get her to turn around. The old Crany had wanted her to turn her whole column around when she was already halfway to her first target. He had held off on calling her, she’d been suspicious of that, but she’d dismissed it. Why should she turn around anyway? The Gobwin Knob units were toast, and Wanda was going to croak, and all the others would be dust.


Then the next day happened. First she’d been told how badly things had gone for Jetstone. That idiot Slately had somehow turned a winning hand into a bust, losing a battle when it was literally unlosable. Then she’d found that while Tramennis didn’t blame her, at least not with his words, he didn’t have kindness for her either. Oh, he wanted to know if Ansom turned to her, as Ossomer had shown it was possible, but other than that, he’d had things to do.


She’d been left to brood after that, hours of waiting for their turn to start so they could raze that city of Brookstone and then return to FAQ. When Duncan had asked if he could send out scouts, she’d allowed it in that half hearted way, even as she herself was distracted by her talks with Ansom, trying to tell him what had happened, trying to get him to realize that what he felt for Wanda wasn’t real, not like what they’d felt for each other.


His words were soft, always answering in terms she could grasp, never trying to provoke her, but always finding that one little thing to make her angry. More than once she’d wanted to turn to Vanna and order her to try and Turn Ansom, but she was mindful of who owned the Turnamancer, and that her juice was better saved for popping the heir at FAQ itself. So instead she would continue to trade platitude with her former lover.


All at once, that boring day got very, very unboring, in the worst way possible. Their scouts, some nice Level Two gwiffons were croaked, as a force stormed into the hex from the side facing Spacerock. The warning that gave should have been enough to prepare at least a basic formation, allowing them to hold the Level Three City until they figured out just what was going on.


It didn’t work out that way. The force hit them so hard and fast that the best they could do was engage a few of them. Worse, her megalos’ prisoners were repatriated by the enemy the moment their Chief Warlord entered the hex via some Thinkamancy-Foolamancy link spell, allowing him to touch them without having to actually touch them. Instantly bonds vanished, and strength returned to them.


The result was a slaughter, as dwagons against gwiffons was hardly a fair fight under the best of circumstances, and this was hardly that. Her eyes darted, her senses expanded, and she could do nothing but stare as Duncan, powerful Duncan who’s bonus had been such an aid, was pushed from his megalogwif by some Gobwin Knob stabber, and met his end on the cold stones below.


Vanna tried her best to aid in the fight, but her single turn of juice was no match for the forces arrayed against her, and Jillian’s last view of the woman was of a half a dozen pinks bubbling her, keeping her from moving an inch. Her screams of frustration could be heard though, as well as the shouts of the dying, units being croaked one after another by sheer force of overwhelming firepower.


Her face turned from the fighting around her to find Ansom, now bedecked in his own armor with that horrible skull on it. The sight of it, of the Bud in its hair right where she remembered putting one so many times, drove her mad. She attacked Ansom, her barbarian days screamed at her to take him down, to prevent him from escaping. He didn’t fight back at first, instead catching her first attack in his arms, holding her wrists.


“I forgive you,” he whispered to her, and her madness, her rage, and everything else broke. In two heartbeats she’d gone from a surprised ruler, to a raging barbarian, and now to a shell, barely hearing as Wanda’s dragon, a Decrypted Red by the black lines on it, flew up to her. Ansom, smiling as warmly as he could, began to walk off towards the dwagon, but then Jillian acted, her thoughts so scattered she didn’t know what was going on.


“I love you,” was all she’d gotten a chance to say, before she gave a ruler level command. She disbanded all the megalos that were still alive, intending on dropping their prisoners onto the courtyard below. In that same moment, she dove forward, and wrapped her arms around Ansom, either to hold herself against him one last time, or just to drag him down with her, she couldn’t have said.


The pair of them tumbled out of the sky over Brookstone, and she felt something she hadn’t in a long, long time. She felt happy, as Ansom, for reasons she couldn’t understand, hugged the blonde ruler to his breast, allowing the two this one last embrace. She cried then, not in fear, in pain, or anything else, but in joy. She was to die with this man holding her, and she held him. Weak? Yes, it was, but she was happy with this simple thing, and wasn’t that everything that mattered.


Then the moment passed. The fat man, Lord Hamster she thought he’d been called, swooped out of the sky. His body should not have allowed for that, but it did anyway, something on his back giving him a flight special. His size allowed him to catch the pair just before they hit the ground, denying her the one joy she felt she could have had, and she growled in anger at him.


Her sword flashed, wicked edge glowing with fire in her grip, but before she could strike, Ansom release her, he let her go, and she found herself falling alone now, her expression almost comical as she looked at him, his eyes telling her that, had this not happened, he might have been happy too, becoming dust with her. Now, he was carried off instead, his loyalty demanding he save this stranger’s life, over her’s.


A second later, she feels impact, and thinks she’s croaked, but then is shocked when it turns out Fate is crueler still than oblivion. She’d been caught, by someone mounted on a gwiffon. She looks at him, numbly observing the name Brevis, before the pair dive into the city’s surrounding woods, where they stay for hours, even as the warlords and others search the trees for them.


She makes no move, no sound, and instead is as good as a golem, laying there, sitting behind the Sergeant on his mount. The moment their turn begins, he bolts, several dwagons spotting them, but none quick enough to catch them. With the gwiffon’s speed, and its move, they’re able to go from Brookstone to near the border of FAQ in a single turn, avoiding all eyes, and making a very sparse camp.


Brevis, to his credit, did not try and drag anything from his Queen. He wasn’t Duncan, who’d been on dwagon back wearing black and red armor the last they’d seen him. No, Brevis wasn’t Duncan, who would be cajoling his Queen for her actions, trying to get her to see she was doing things wrong. Instead he caught them a wabbit to make stew with, and let her sit quietly in the light of the campfire.


And now here she was, in her chambers, a night after the scouts had spotted a force of Gobwin Knob dwagons at their very doorstep. They were expected tomorrow, perhaps a few minutes past dawn, and they would be at her gate. Ansom, Duncan, and many other known faces were with them, and they sat upon enough firepower to simply erase FAQ from the map, taking the few cities with ease.


She’d wished she could call for help, but Don wasn’t taking her calls anymore. Vinny had left a few turns after she’d gotten back. How many she didn’t know, but she knew why he’d left. Ansom, she’d failed to bring Ansom back, and worse, Don had been counting on her. He’d funded her kingdom, in order to make it a strong enough sword to cut down Gobwin Knob’s leadership. But when she’d been needed, she’d simply turned away and left, because she had a personal prize, and it was all that mattered to her.


Jetstone? No, Tramennis had called her yesterday, and grilled her on the Battle at Spacerock. Oh, he’d done it subtly, in that way of his, the little spymaster, but she recognized an interrogation when she saw one. He’d wanted to know if she’d bargained with Wanda before Vanna’s spell. Of course, she had admitted it, it wasn’t shameful after all. She’d been working for Charlie at the time, and while she couldn’t admit that, her tactic had worked, should have given Jetstone the battle if only…


If only everything had gone to plan. If only she’d stayed. Those unspoken words, burning deep within the eyes of the King of Jetstone, had burned her more than any spell or fire could have. She’d cut the connection herself, and then retired to her quarters. She’d stayed there that whole day, and into the afternoon, before the report of the dwagons had come in, and she’d tried to rally her forces.


She had none to do so with. Brevis, a nice warlord with a low bonus, and a handful of stabbers were all she had left. Everything else had been taken to Spacerock, everything else had been lost. She’d still sent them on drills, kept them moving, but until the heir popped, she couldn’t have do anything else, and he wasn’t due for a dozen or more turns. Her contract with Charlie demanded she pop the heir, and so her hands were tied. as the cost of breaking was more than her whole side now.


So here she sat, alone, in a bed built for two or even more. She had no friends, no lovers, not even allies to call on. Tomorrow, she would face oblivion again, and maybe this time, she’d be allowed to go to it. Brevis’ scout hadn’t seen Wanda with the dwagons, so perhaps she would be allowed to croak for real, and Titan’s willing, she’d use her strength to take Ansom with her, to free him from Wanda’s chains.


Thinking these dark thoughts, she finally rose from her bed, tossing the covers away, and looking out over the darkened city. Her father’s voice, she could almost hear now, berating her for her failure, of how her warlike, brutish nature had doomed their kingdom. She’d been popped to avoid this Fate, and yet, every path now led to destruction. Holding herself, she let the wind blow on her, and just waited for the night to end.


“Please hold for Charlie,” a voice rang out in her head, and she jolted her gaze upwards to find that she was in a thinkspace, staring at an archon. The archon wore no expression, did not even look down at her, just letting her stand there, shocked at what was happening. A few seconds later, the archon vanished, and Charlie, or rather, the Charlescomm crest, hovered in front of her.


“Hmm, not exactly what I expected to find when I called you up, but still, a far better state than I’d feared,” said that voice, and she felt rage welling up inside her, at memories long buried, but she quelled it with a shudder.


“Unless you’re here to let me out of our contract, I’m not going to banter,” she said bluntly, pulling what she’d hoped would be a large broadsword out of her mindscape and into the thoughtspace. Sadly, as fractured and delicate a state as she was in, the sword was barely a butter knife, but she held it like it were a deadly weapon.


“And what, pray tell, would you do with your production if I let you out of it?” he asked in that disarming way of his, forcing her to try and think of an answer. Not that there was one. Even if she stopped popping the heir now, she’d only get half the production back. It was a lot, but still not nearly enough. A few dozen stabbers, a flight of gwiffons, or even one Megalo. Those were her options, maybe even a bit of mixing with the first two, but even those wouldn’t be enough.


“I’d die fighting,” was her response, and it actually seemed to catch Charlie off guard, as the icon stopped bobbing in the air for a moment.


“Are you so far gone now, that you don’t even have a dream of victory?” he asked, and she spit at him in answer.


“I see. Then I suppose it wouldn’t interest you to know that your execution has been stayed for another day,” he told her, and she had to consider that. His phrasing said a lot, as he wasn’t claiming he ‘could’ save her, but more that she’d already ‘been’ saved. She wondered idly what he could mean, and then leaned back against the void, dropping the knife so it faded.


“Speak,” she told him, and the icon bobbed forward in a motion like a bob.


“Very well. In brief, my forces recently engaged Stanley. I wouldn’t have done so, but he was a tempting target, thanks to you. While you cost me much, leaving the Overlord exposed like that regained me Vanna, and very nearly allowed me to deal with a very big problem,” he told her, and she scoffed. She knew what his problem was, though he’d never spoken of it directly. Parson, Lord Hamster, who had been a subject of discussion between her and Tramennis during their short discussions after the battle.


“I take it you didn’t win,” she said, almost happy in her tone. Oh, she wanted Stanley croaked. Heck, without him, with no heir, she would have been able to survive the next turn without aide. Still, Charlie was someone she hated almost as much, if for different reasons, and she enjoyed him being annoyed.


“Sadly, no. Stanley slipped through my fingers. However, as my own side needs a single city, I’ve been considering what to do with the new territory, and I believe I know someone who could use such a boost,” he told her, and she almost swore at him, wishing she had the knife to throw.


“And what would I have to do, to gain such a thing?” she asked, not trying to be coy or anything, she wanted this all on the table, as she felt like oblivion would be kinder than her life.


“Simple really. I need allies Jillian, real ones. This whole business with Stanley, the Royal Crown Coalition, and most especially this Decryption tomfoolery has been costing me,” he explained.


“Oh, and you’re running out of money?” she asked, smiling at him.


“Schmuckers aren’t worth much where I’m standing, though it has been costing those. It’s been costing me units, favors, and most especially time. I need that to stop, and the best way to do that is to hire someone who will act as a buffer,” as he spoke, the tip of his wing seemed to press against the edges of the thought space, and then pull it down like he was dragging down a map that was rolled up on a wall, showing a contract.


“As you want this kept simple, I’ll lay it out for you. FAQ is to become a Vassal state, one that is loyal to my own Side. You will be independent, but joined, a junior partner in my business. In short, I’ll provide the resources to allow you to go hunting for our enemies,” he explained, and then pulled away so she could read the contract.


As he’d said, it was simple. The terms were easy to see, and came with quite the penalty for breaking it on her side. Still, what it offered was something she’d never expected to get now that she was Queen. It was freedom, just the same as what she’d had when she was a barbarian. Reading it over and over again, she felt her heart thudding, wondering just what was going on for Charlie to offer her this much.


“Mind, you’re only getting this because you’re close to Gobwin Knob’s site. If you say no, I’m afraid I’ll have to take my offer elsewhere, and while I don’t know who would accept it, I’m certain they’ll ask for tactical information of the area, and that would include neighbors,” he told her, the threat implicit in his words. It was an ultimatum, serve Charlie, or be crushed by him. A rock and a hard place. Jillian felt her mouth go dry, and she could almost hear her father clicking his tongue at her, ashamed of what she was about to do.


(Next Chapter: http://www.erfworld.com/blog/view/55792/money-makes-the-world-go-round-part-19 )


    • falcore51

      Oh such sweet sorrow. 

      • Jatopian

        "If you say now" should be "If you say no" I believe.

        • Hammer

          Two thoughts:

          One: in her thoughts, Jillian refers to Charlie as "the old Crany" (probably should be Carnie/Carny), but that begs the second thought: How does she even -know- that?  I'm pretty sure the psychic alteration to her head at the end of book 0 specifically was to pull that (and some other) information out of her head.

          • WurmD

            I don't understand 

            "The fat man, Lord Hamster she thought he’d been called, swooped out of the sky. His body should not have allowed for that, but it did anyway, something on his back giving him a flight special. His size allowed him to catch the pair just before they hit the ground," since Parson is supposedly not at this battle. He was at Spacerock, and then went into the MK and into Jetstone